Stella Smith: We all have responsibility for behaviour at work

Recent scandals have shone light on what some charities do wrong, but it's up to all of us to stop brushing bad behaviours under the carpet

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

People in the charity sector love to challenge things. We’re forever playing devil’s advocate, pointing out the flaw in the argument, highlighting the unfairness of what’s happening. It’s all part of our DNA. This is a great quality, but I think we sometimes spend too much time focusing on people’s mistakes and what’s not working.

Frankly, in the current climate, pointing out what people are doing wrong is hardly rocket science. What we need to be able to do is step up and take part in finding a way out of the problems.

I’ve noticed this in how we’ve responded to the recent crises in the sector. These scandals have provoked furious responses, and we can all see there is something very wrong in the culture of some of our organisations. However, although we can be good at apportioning blame, we haven’t been quite so good at working together to create solutions.

Take for example the recent events at Amnesty International. A report on the charity said that it had an "adversarial culture". In response, the trade union Unite is demanding the resignation of the senior leadership team. It’s clear that mistakes have been made, but surely demanding the whole team resign is only going to reinforce rather than heal an adversarial culture. Of course people should be held to account, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can place the blame on one group of individuals and then the problem will disappear. Changing organisational culture is complex and everyone has to play their part in making it better.

Senior people set the tone, but we all have individual responsibility for how we behave towards each other day to day, and it’s these everyday interactions that really affect how most people feel about work. Tough jobs can be made bearable by great co-workers, and helpful colleagues make all the difference when you’re having a bad day at work.

Surprisingly, though, for a sector that is so focused on making the world a better place, some of us seem quite unconcerned about how we support each other. There are many fabulous charity staff, but I’ve also encountered some real stress-creating people in the sector. These people seem to assume that because their jobs are important this somehow gives them permission to be inconsiderate to and abrasive with colleagues.

What is most worrying is that many of us just turn a blind eye to this behaviour. Rather than give people honest feedback and performance-manage them, we brush the issue under the carpet and hope the people concerned leave or someone else sorts it out. We work around difficult behaviours and they become part of our culture, of how we do things. Only when something terrible happens do we begin to see the implications of our actions.

There are real problems in some charities, of course, but we will not solve them if we apportion blame only to others and don’t take a look at how our own actions on a day-to-day basis are contributing to the situation. We have to start by taking some responsibility and having honest conversations with ourselves and each other. If we are going to create a positive workplace for everyone, then we all have to make it happen.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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